Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished (Catsup Plate, 2000)
Danse Manatee (Catsup Plate, 2001)
1/2 Campfire Songs (Catsup Plate, 2003)
Here Comes the Indian (Paw Tracks, 2003)
1/2 Sung Tongs (FatCat, 2004)
1/2 Feels (FatCat, 2005)
Strawberry Jam (Domino, 2007)
Merriweather Post Pavillion (Domino, 2009)
If indie-rock was divided into a Jets vs. Sharks style rivalry, there would have been some major knife-wielding between the Eggheads and the Hippies. Noise bands and laptop-wielding wonks would have gathered on the former's side, celebrating new technologies and nuanced sounds that aim for the brain more than the ear. Folk singers and jam bands would have gathered on the latter's side, trumpeting organic instrumentation and melodies tailor-made for twirling around in your muumuu.
Except, nearly a decade ago, Animal Collective joined both sides. The group's members — avey Tare, Panda Bear, Deakin, and the Geologist, all named after inside-jokes — layered Phish-worthy improvisations and harmonies with digital gurgles and squishes, and the cold industrial pulse of musique concrete. In the process, they found virtues both eggheads and hippies could appreciate: namely, the joys of experimentation, and the importance of making music that's deeply enriched by bong hits.
Originally released as limited-edition albums and later reissued together by the English label Fat Cat, 2000's Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished and 2001's Danse Manatee may be the group's most abstract and polarizing works. Spirit begins with a blast of digital static, perhaps to weed out anyone searching for a Hot 100 single. (The band once admitted that after receiving the album, their label called to ask, "Is there something wrong with this? This music makes our dogs run out of the room.") And Danse's "Ahhh Good Country" is neither country, nor good – just the endless chirping of what sounds like extremely agitated crickets. Migraine triggers abound: hammer-on-drainpipe percussion, extremely high-pitched electronics, chaotic arrangements that suggest Animal Collective might have set a dozen gibbons loose on Pro Tools just to see what would happen. But for the very patient, there's also moments of real beauty, like the insect-like skitter-scatter beat of "Chocolate Girl," or the sad piano refrain of "Penny Dreadfuls." Adrift in so much flotsam and jetsam, they're only hooks in the sense that they offer something solid to hang onto.
Animal Collective abandoned electronic instrumentation completely for 2003's stripped-down Campfire Songs, their only real foray into neo-folk. Recorded live on three mini-disc recorders, while the band was playing on a porch in rural Maryland, it rustles with the wind, rain, birds, and dogs outside, adding texture to the shamanic vocals and rhythmic acoustic guitar that make up each track. The album title may be sarcastic: there's nothing here that Boy Scouts could sing along to. But with no choruses, no drums, and no bravado, the ambient strumming feels like a total surrender of ego — the perfect soundtrack for gazing up at the stars and losing yourself among them.
Animal Collective explored a more studio-labored recording process on Here Comes the Indian, released the same year as Campfire Songs, with far more claustrophobic results. Admitting that 2003 was a tough year — money was sparse, Panda Bear's father was ill, other members were considering leaving the band — the Geologist once explained that the album represented "the absolute heart of that darkness." Avey Tare played his electric guitar through a delay pedal and pitch shifter to create a doubled sound, while the rest of the band processed various effects through a Roland synthesizer and vocoder, and the effect is deeply unnerving. It's fitting that one track, appropriately titled "Panic," features the band crying like grieving Apaches, their voices melting into demonic tones, while a continuous beeping on "Two Sails on a Sound" appears to be transmitting an S.O.S. message. Brown acid, meet brain.
By the end of 2003, the main question facing Animal Collective was how to make challenging music more pleasant and pleasant music more challenging. The solution: Focus on songs, not sounds. Artfully fractured but still brimming with sunny pop, 2004's Sung Tongs smeared together choirboy harmonies, open-tuned folk hymns, hypnotic drumming and gentle kraut-rock undulations into a marvelous Day-Glo tapestry. The highlight was "Winter Love," which began with a haunting surf-pop lullabye that could've made Brian Wilson nostalgic for his sandbox. On 2005's Feels, melodies and snippets of discernable lyrics drifted in and out of focus like sailboats through a fog. With song titles like "Daffy Duck" and "Bees," the lyrics were often childlike, and the temperaments were too. Bursts of angry reverb interrupted calm autoharp strums. Animalistic yelps gave way to soothing, sparkling electronics. Through it all, band practiced their best magic trick: taking madly-strummed guitars — the hallmark of so much aggressive punk — and making them sound delicate.
Animal Collective were quickly evolving from a limited-edition underground band to an indie success. 2007's Strawberry Jam broadened their appeal even further: This was a true rock & roll record — for them, at least. More than any of their other works, the vocals are dry and clear, pushed to the front of the mix so that actual lyrics are easily discernable for the first time. All the dreamy acoustic reverie has turned cold and industrial, with harsh keyboards, guitars, and electronics taking on a metallic vibe. Even the song structures feel mechanized, sending pattern after pattern down the assembly line. Meanwhile, the childlike wonder of Feels has aged — now the band was obsessed with responsibility and mortality. "Life was good, now death's all wrong/Cause you can't feel a thing," Avey Tare mused on "Cuckoo Cuckoo." If Feels was drifting out into orbit, this was the comedown back to earth.
Throughout their career, Animal Collective remained masterful at synthesizing opposing impulses, making music that's both harsh and soothing, whimsical and intellectual, acoustic and electric. Their breakthrough album, 2009's Merriweather Post Pavillion, was the apotheosis of this talent: This was their big mainstream cult favorite. While it wasn't going to be their entry point into Z100 rotation, it was certainly their most listener-friendly album, loaded up with glistening synths, kaleidoscopic whirls, and gleeful daisy-chain rhythms. Like the Grateful Dead, who were once banned from the Merriweather Post Pavillion concert venue that gives the album its name, they'd evolved from arty freak-outs to pastoral grandeur. The best part? After spending the decade hunched over their computer screens, they'd finally made an album that would make them get up and dance.
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